When John Duncan III took office as Knox County trustee in 2010, he made a very good decision. He ceased contracting delinquent tax collections to a private attorney and instead hired a staff attorney.
Not only did this save the county more than $100,000 per year, it brought focus to the task. Dedicated to the job full time, Chad Tindell outperformed the private firm on collections, and he coordinated with state and city officials for further savings and efficiencies.
Collecting delinquent property taxes can be complicated, especially with absentee owners or inherited land. Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero’s efforts at reviving blighted neighborhoods put delinquent properties in the spotlight, and Tindell has been an ally to the city in conducting sales.
Only two years ago did the city gain the authority to sell delinquent lots, so Tindell’s legal expertise has been handy. Because abandoned property is often overgrown and in disrepair, tax liens pile up against a lot’s diminishing value, and the minimum bid can exceed what the property is worth.
If no bids exceed the tax lien, the government is the high bidder and wins the auction.
After a one-year grace period for the deed holder to resolve delinquencies, government owns the land. Title companies may refuse to underwrite subsequent sales, fearing that the former owner will resurface and challenge the tax sale. Such challenges are never successful, but defending them costs money.
Tindell formed a statewide coalition of delinquent-tax lawyers, and they have been lobbying the General Assembly for reforms to help cities and counties deal with growing numbers of abandoned properties.
Some reforms need to happen in Nashville, but the city and county have been streamlining their procedures as well. On Monday, County Commission approved changes to how the county disposes of surplus property. Tindell enthusiastically recommended these changes, but it was a moment bathed in irony.
Despite his successes, Tindell was asked to resign.
The trustee’s office has been plagued by scandal since it was revealed that an employee had taken training exams for others in the office, their good scores earning them a raise. Tindell was not involved in the cheating scheme and may not have even known what was going on, but because he helped prepare the legal document that upped the cheaters’ salaries, he was charged as an accomplice.
It was a misdemeanor charge, but Duncan decided the law director could do Tindell’s job for even less money—$85,000 to be exact. Commission approved, without discussion, consolidation of the trustee’s legal work into the Law Department. Perhaps an attorney there will pick up Tindell’s torch, but more likely collections will drop back to former levels, and Duncan III will have undone his only proud accomplishment.
Tindell has not announced what is next for him, but we would all benefit if his next job allows him to continue the reforms he has been working on. Perhaps the city can find a role for him, or his legal coalition can establish a directorship in which he could help local governments coordinate and lobby for reforms.
It is a tenet of democracy that the people propel government forward, improving and perfecting it. In Knox County, however, government lurches aimlessly forward, back, and sideways. This is what happens when factions and parties gain too much power. For want of sparing a Duncan, a dedicated public servant was lost.
The ease with which the trustee’s authority was transferred to the law director proves how simple it would be to fold the fee offices into the executive branch. Doing so would improve government efficiency, but it would deprive the ruling party of plum jobs and patronage positions.
Local power players decided to groom John Duncan III for a political career. He was not elected trustee so much as simply installed in office. The damage has begun, and the saga is not over.